An Interview with Filmmaker and Actor Mike White

The following is an excerpt from from this month’s film issue. The full piece is available to read on Believermag.com

Over his sixteen-year career, Mike White has written seven films, all of them bittersweet, black comedies about characters who fail horribly in their attempts at self-improvement. These include The Good Girl, Orange County, Chuck and Buck, andSchool of Rock. White has also directed one film (Year of the Dog), and has acted in the majority of his own films, usually volunteering to play the most hapless, unappealing characters, the kind of role well suited to his pallor and discomfiting grin. After some early writing for Dawson’s Creek and Freaks and Geeks, White eventually found a place on television with the new-age corporate dramedy Enlightened, which he created and wrote in 2012. Though it lasted for only two seasons on HBO, the show enjoyed critical praise for its writing and for Laura Dern’s anxiety-driven performance. I visited White at his home in Santa Monica. He had recently returned from a well-deserved Hawaiian vacation.

—Toph Eggers

THE BELIEVER: I’m curious about how you end up acting in so many of the films you write.

MIKE WHITE: I don’t come at it as an actor who is writing his way into his movies. I’m really coming as a writer who ended up acting in certain things—kind of like I backed into it a little bit. With Chuck and Buck, the director really wanted me to do it, and then, because I starred in that film, it kind of set a precedent. I actually think it’s helped me as a writer to have to act. It’s only when you actually start putting yourself out there that you appreciate the anxiety that comes with having to try to sell a line, or with trying to own a character.

BLVR: In Hollywood, even though the vast majority of both creators and critics lean pretty liberal politically, they still get queasy about any story heavily featuring left-wing politics or social issues. And yet in both Enlightened and Year of the Dog, you managed to make some interesting points about social issues (animal cruelty, corporate greed, mental health) without coming across as preachy.

MW: It’s hard to say. I think that those movies, those shows, have still been criticized for [preachiness] in some sense. LikeYear of the Dog—when we got our first round of reviews, in New York and LA, the critics seemed very positive about the movie. But as you got deeper into the middle of the country, suddenly there was a lot more hostility. So I do get criticism. But at the same time, Enlightened was an example of trying to see something from many perspectives. And while I guess my affinity is with Amy [the main character], I see the arrogant side of her, too, and the narcissism that comes with that I see in myself. So it’s about trying to be as honest about the character as possible, while at the same time wanting the audience to take her seriously. But I think the problem with Enlightened was that if I had made Amy a little bit more of a hero, then maybe it would’ve gotten a bigger audience, but I also think that would’ve undercut what I was trying to do.

BLVR: Is being heroic boring?

MW: It’s not boring. It’s more like I want to write something that feels true. I don’t always get along even with the people I love in my life. I’m happy with a characterization I’ve written when I’ve revealed someone with as many of their good sides and bad sides, and I’ve tried to be sympathetic to them, and honest. No one is purely heroic.

Read the full piece on Believermag.com.